Téa Obreht Interviews Maria Dahvana Headley
Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. She She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Obreht is the author of The Tiger's Wife.
Introduction from Maria Dahvana Headley: I met Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife, because I read an article she wrote for Harper’s Magazine about Eastern European vampire legends, and wrote her a love letter in response to it. I was deep into the revision of my own vampire book, Queen of Kings, when I read the article, and I was re-reading passages dealing with vampire legends much older than those she was writing about, but there was no competition, just admiration. The article was strange, strong, magical, and raucous, just like Téa herself. I wouldn’t say that our books are terribly similar, but I would say that we (and they) have similar preoccupations. An interest in monsters and beasts, and the strange relationships humans can have with same. A fascination with folklore and myth. A few months later, we met for a drink after a reading Tea did in Seattle, and we discovered that we also both have a dirty sense of humor, a tendency to laugh loud and long, and the kind of personality that attracts strangers to our table, usually bearing peculiar gifts. I’m honored to be interviewed by her.
Téa Obreht: Tell me a little bit about Queen of Kings. How did it start? How long did it gestate? Has this subject matter always been something with which you always wanted to deal in writing?
Maria Dahvana Headley: I started writing Queen of Kings in September 2009, in what was essentially a fit of madness. I’d been working intensely for four years on another book, a novel based in my family history, and I could not seem get it right. Worse, it seemed to be driving me crazy. Michael Chabon has talked a lot about this, working on a “wreck” – and has recently, bravely, published an annotated version of part of his own wrecked novel, Fountain City. Suffice it to say that I completely relate. One day in the middle of another 800 page draft of my leaky, half-sinking, occasionally awesome novel, I was struck by a sudden idea for what is now the second book in this trilogy. It’d never occurred to me to write anything like this, but the book is full of things I’ve been interested in my entire life, mythology and classical history, gods, monsters… Everyone in my life was no doubt weary of my moaning about the other book, and so I got a lot of encouragement to start something new. Still, it was hard to put all that work on the back burner. I gnashed my teeth for a few days, and then started feverishly writing Queen of Kings, which I sold a few months later, literally as a first draft, and then rewrote extensively for another few months after that. It was a surprise, but a happy one. I had no idea what kind of book I was going to write, almost until the moment I finished it.
Téa Obreht: Coming off the stunningly successful publication of your first book, The Year of Yes: A Memoir, you’re in a unique position with Queen of Kings-—both your books are, in some way, “firsts”. Why did you decide to make this leap from memoir into fiction, and what has surprised you about it? Did you find the writing process very different?
Maria Dahvana Headley: It’s a departure, for sure. The Year of Yes is not only a memoir, it’s a comedic one. Queen of Kings isn’t funny at all. I think there’s one funny line in the book – or at least, only one that’s intentionally funny. I hope there aren’t more! I never considered myself a memoir writer for the long haul. I started as a playwright, and then wrote short stories for years. The Year of Yes was a kind of lovely fluke, and though it was a great experience, I think I’m actually happier writing fiction these days. That book felt like a collection of stories I might tell at a cocktail party, and this one feels like a story I might tell if I were Scheherazade working my way through 1001 nights. It’s a much bigger canvas. Though all stories, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, are told through the storyteller’s filter, there’s something wonderful in getting to truly make things up. Even though Queen of Kings is a hybrid of historical fiction and dark fantasy, and contains a lot of factual material, I was still able to create monsters. It turns out that it’s a great deal of fun to invent monsters. I had no idea!
Téa Obreht: Queen of Kings is delightful and surprising and difficult to encapsulate, negotiating a well-known and much-beloved historical episode with your own new and incredible mythology. Talk to me about genre-bending: what made you want to dust off the Cleopatra legend, and what kind of balance did you want to strike between historical accuracy and the world you wanted to work with as a writer? Did you feel intimidated at all by obligation or homage?
Maria Dahvana Headley: The thing that drew me to your work was actually a similar kind of genre-bending spirit: your novel The Tiger’s Wife is both literary fiction and stunning fantasy, filled with folklore, myth, and magic as well as history, and when I read it, I was floored. Queen of Kings has a equally wide range (though it’s a very different kind of story and book). Perhaps I just have a greedy spirit and want a book to contain everything all at once! I love the idea of monsters and witches, Gods and ghosts being part of a novel rooted in real events. In classical Rome and Egypt, a story like the one I invented for Queen of Kings wouldn’t have been at all beyond the pale. These were societies in which the gods wandered amongst the people, and in which magic and witchcraft were utterly believed in. It was only a small step, therefore, for me to find very natural places for my magical creations to mix with the story of Cleopatra, Antony, Augustus and the Roman Army. I researched the book with Plutarch, Suetonius, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and many more texts, and I was able to depict a lot of the history very faithfully – in part because the history itself is full of mysteries and inconsistencies. In many cases, I simply filled in the gaps. Of course, there are definitely places in the book wherein the history and I diverge radically – this, after all, is a book in which a woman sells her soul to a goddess, and becomes immortal. Sekhmet, the Egyptian chaos goddess featured in the book actually IS vampiric. She’s not called a vampire – that word didn’t exist in the ancient world – but she drinks blood. That’s really in the mythology, and it was a lot of fun to play with it in this story. Even novels that are straight historical fiction are works of fantasy in many regards. We imagine ourselves into the minds of people we don’t know, people who perhaps actually existed. No matter how accurate our research is, there are always unknowns in any kind of story. And even though lots of people have written terrific books about Cleopatra, this one is fundamentally different, so I managed to feel relatively calm about taking on her legend. Perhaps I should’ve felt a bit more stressed out! There’s certainly a lot of baggage associated with the most famous woman in history, but there are a lot of glorious unknowns, too.
Téa Obreht: Here’s a question I often think about myself: what is it about the darkness in myth that draws us as readers and as human beings?
Maria Dahvana Headley: I love that question. I think that there’s something so compelling, in story terms, in the surprises often found in myth, the creatures appearing out of dark water, the monsters chasing and then falling in love with their prey, the tender (and sometimes not so tender) nearly-human desires in the hearts of beasts. Your book, particular the sections involving the tiger, and from the tiger’s perspective, is all about this notion, and you deal with it beautifully. With their fantastical elements, their metaphor and spectacle, myths have something interesting to say about both the complexity of love, and about the randomness of life. Many things in life do not, after all, follow a rational narrative. In myth, characters are often punished by the gods for things that they did not do. Sometimes life is the same way. Myths almost always have life and death stakes, and I think we crave stories like that. We are in lots of ways savage creatures who’ve been only superficially tamed. These days, love looks to us like hearts and flowers, but the classical version of love is often a great deal more brutal and complicated. The story of Hades and Persephone, for example, begins with a kidnapping, and ends with what in many accounts seems to be a loving marriage. I actually thought quite a bit about this as I was writing this book, given that a lot of the mythology I was reading and drawing from is incredibly bloody. There’s a character in Queen of Kings whose actions are based in part on those of Medea, for example, a woman who is most famous for brutally murdering her own children. (Fear not, that actually doesn’t happen in this book – I was more interested in Medea’s youth spells.) As well, the heroine of this book does a lot of things I’d never do myself. She kills a lot of people. I had to put myself into a mindset where I could imagine why she would, and empathize with her. Essentially, I spent a lot of writing days in the mind of a monster, hungering, desperate, and compelled, longing for lost loves, and vengeance.
Téa Obreht: Reading Queen of Kings, I sensed a lot of gothic undertones, I’d love to know more about what inspires you as a writer. How do you experience literary influence? Are you drawn to the work of other writers by language, by theme, by their treatment of story? To what works did you return—or, perhaps, what works did you discover—while writing Queen of Kings?
Maria Dahvana Headley: I’m an obsessive reader, and I’m fortunate enough to be friends with many of the writers I most admire. Do they influence me? Of course. Everything I love influences me. Many of the writers I most adore create works that are stunning both on a sentence to sentence level and on a plotting level. I happen to like books in which BIG things happen. I love cliffhangers, and twists, mystery and surprise – and I especially love them when they are written by writers who care about language. Words, are, after all, a significant part of the ingredients to any magic spell, and for me, the best books are enchantments. To my eye, writers like Guy Gavriel Kay, Neil Gaiman, Rikki DuCornet, Peter Straub, Angela Carter, Kathryn Davis, China Mieville, and you (!) have been really successful in mixing together disparate ingredients and creating a new kind of storytelling. I also re-read George R.R. Martin’s fantastic Ice & Fire books right before I started writing this. He kills characters. Unapologetically. It’s very much what I was saying a moment ago about myth. Weirdly, though, one of the things that most inspired this book was a very ancient kind of storytelling. I started thinking about the oldest novels and epic poems, from Beowulf to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, to Apuleis’ The Golden Ass, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses – and they’re all fantasy twined together with history and realistic events. Those books inspired me as well. While I wrote, I wallowed in the wonders of Ovid and Virgil, the Sibylline Oracles, and in the Sir Thomas North translation of Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans (circa 1593, which Shakespeare used as source material for Antony & Cleopatra). Pure, if geeky, pleasure.
Téa Obreht: And, of course, what’s next for you? Do you think you’ll stay with fiction, move back to memoir? Venture into something new?
Maria Dahvana Headley: Queen of Kings is the first book of a trilogy, and I have all three books mapped out in my head, (the second one is in progress) so I’m definitely going to be busy with fiction for a while!
(Photo of Téa Obreht © Beowulf Sheehan)
(Photo of Maria Dahvana Headley © John Ulman)